Marijuana legalization bill goes to full House

Committee hearing details pros, cons of cannabis use
June 7, 2019

A marijuana legalization bill that would allow outdoor growing facilities to increase supply and curtail black market sales while bringing in state revenue moved out of committee June 5 and awaits action in the House.

House Bill 110 would end the prohibition of marijuana in Delaware while regulating the nascent industry’s sales and operations. A 15 percent tax would go to the state’s general fund, and previous marijuana charges would be expunged.

“Prohibition of marijuana has been an abysmal failure in the past 50 years,” said Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, during the two-hour hearing of the House Revenue and Finance Committee.

Dozens of people, including business owners and medical professionals, spoke out in favor of and against legalizing marijuana.

Carol Everhart, president of the Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, said her group opposes legalizing marijuana out of concern that the quaint character of the beach town would change by attracting people who want to use recreational drugs.

“We invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the beach resort as a family-friendly area,” she said.

Bill Henschke, a family member and operator of Funland, said it is difficult to tell if someone is impaired from marijuana, and ride operators under the influence could put public safety in jeopardy.

“If operators are impaired, our liabilities could go through the roof,” he said.

Other business owners and groups echoed those concerns.

Construction company owners cited concerns over impaired employees, a representative from AAA Mid-Atlantic stated traffic incidents would increase, and medical professionals said public health would be at risk.

Karyl Ratty, director of public health, said research shows that legalizing marijuana will aggravate addiction and mental health problems.

“First and foremost, marijuana is addictive,” she said. “Among people who try cannabis more than once, more than 15 percent become addicted.”

She said marijuana is not a way to reduce opioid use, and studies show a link to marijuana use with other drugs, schizophrenia and other psychosis.

But others questioned the classification of marijuana as a gateway drug, and they touted the drug’s benefits.

Ruth Betrand, a certified nurse, said the pain-relief benefits of marijuana are better than those offered by legally prescribed and highly addictive opiate pills. She said it should not be a last-resort prescription, but one used to legitimately relieve pain.

“Lately, I’m feeling more like a pill pusher instead of a nurse,” she said. “In cannabis, the only side effects you see are eating a piece of pizza and maybe taking a nap.”

Charles Sterk, board member of the New Castle County Civic League, said he has worked with adjudicated juveniles and adults since 2009, and he is disturbed over a recent increase in marijuana arrests and citations, even though marijuana possession was decriminalized in 2015.

“I was a bit surprised this year when 90 percent of our referrals were for marijuana arrests and civil citations. We were basically scratching our heads,” he said. “What I observed with referrals was they were for marijuana arrests and citations with no additional charges.”

In reviewing reports on crime in Delaware, Sterk said there is a trend across the state in more people charged with marijuana-related offenses. In February, Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings announced that her office is no longer prosecuting cases involving less than 6 ounces of marijuana.

“If the attorney general is going to choose not to prosecute, why should local police file civil citation or low-level arrests?” he asked.

Marijuana citations still show on a student’s arrest record, and even if the charge is dropped, he said, he knows five students who have lost scholarships. “How many other students have been affected?” he asked.

Ben Parson of Delaware State Police State Bureau of Identification said the department has had a 168 percent increase in criminal records that need expungement, but not enough employees to do the work. Under current staffing, he said, it will take eight years to clear the caseload, if marijuana charges are retroactively expunged under the proposed bill.

Giving another law enforcement opinion, Dave Foster, a former Delaware undercover narcotics detective who was certified to testify in court, said the bill would weaken the black market by allowing the legal purchase of legally grown marijuana.

“The black market owns the entire market share. For 50 years, it’s been forfeited to them in full. Here’s the chance to weaken them, cut their share of the market instantly, and take more from them every year,” he said. “If you want to shape and steer the process and future of this inevitable industry … then join your fellow lawmakers in Illinois who just this week reached the same conclusion.”

While some business owners supported the bill, Sam Chick, a store owner in Dover, said he supports the bill only with amendments that would allow home grow. As written, the bill would allow marijuana to be grown outside by a limited number of permitted farmers, a change from medical marijuana law that allows growing marijuana only inside facilities.

He said the proposed law would only benefit corporate entities, and an amendment to allow home grow is needed to benefit Delaware farmers. In the past eight years, he said, only three cultivation facilities and four dispensaries have opened in the state. Several other speakers and legislators spoke about shortages in medical marijuana supplies.

“Currently, as written, HB 110 represents the corporate takeover of cannabis in Delaware. It only allows a small number of privileged corporations the ability to profit from the cultivation and sale of cannabis while continuing to criminalize any Delawarean who possesses more than 1 ounce or who chooses to grow their own cannabis.”

Without amendments, Chick said, HB 110 repeats the same corporate takeover allowed under Delaware’s medical marijuana program. High cultivation fees listed in the bill, ranging from $2,500 to $15,000, would also hurt local farmers, he said.

“You can work for the man, but you can’t be the man,” he said.

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